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If schools are de-emphasizing culturally enriching field trips, has anything been lost as a result? Surprisingly, we have relatively little rigorous evidence about how field trips affect students. The research presented here is the first large-scale randomized-control trial designed to measure what students learn from school tours of an art museum.

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We also assessed students’ critical-thinking skills by asking them to write a short essay in response to a painting that they had not previously seen. Finally, we collected a behavioral measure of interest in art consumption by providing all students with a coded coupon good for free family admission to a special exhibit at the museum to see whether the field trip increased the likelihood of students making future visits.

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All results reported below are derived from regression models that control for student grade level and gender and make comparisons within each matched pair, while taking into account the fact that students in the matched pair of applicant groups are likely to be similar in ways that we are unable to observe. Standard validity tests confirmed that the survey items employed to generate the various scales used as outcomes measured the same underlying constructs.

Design of the Study and School Tours
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• I plan to visit art museums when I am an adult.

The improvement in tolerance for students who went on a tour of Crystal Bridges can be illustrated by the responses to one of the items within the tolerance scale. When asked about the statement, “Artists whose work is critical of America should not be allowed to have their work shown in art museums,” 35 percent of the control-group students express agreement. But for students randomly assigned to receive a school tour of the art museum, only 32 percent agree with censoring art critical of America. Among rural students, 34 percent of the control group would censor art compared to 30 percent for the treatment group. In high-poverty schools, 37 percent of the control-group students would censor compared to 32 percent of the treatment-group students. These differences are not huge, but neither is the intervention. These changes represent the realistic improvement in tolerance that results from a half-day experience at an art museum.

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• Trips to art museums are interesting.

The 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas created the opportunity for this study. Crystal Bridges is the first major art museum to be built in the United States in the last four decades, with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment in excess of $800 million. Portions of the museum’s endowment are devoted to covering all of the expenses associated with school tours. Crystal Bridges reimburses schools for the cost of buses, provides free admission and lunch, and even pays for the cost of substitute teachers to cover for teachers who accompany students on the tour.

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• Would your friend like to go to an art museum on a field trip?

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation encourages the pursuit of education and self improvement by awarding scholarships to extraordinary young leaders.